Posts Tagged extremism

In this dead-end

Today, I discovered a poem (and a poet) for the first time.

Only some thirty years too late.

And wouldn’t you know it, he’s dead now. He died over a decade ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

I don’t read poetry much. Don’t have time, for one thing. Am not really very attuned to it, for another. But I tripped across Ahmad Shamlou’s poem, “In this dead-end” by accident. And it hit me so hard. Because unfortunately, I know too much about what he is talking about:

In this dead-end

They smell your breath

You had better not have said, ‘I love you.’

They smell your heart.

These are strange times, darling…

And they flog love at the checkpoint

We must hide love in the closet.

In this crooked dead end and twisting chill

they feed the fire with the kindling of song and poetry

Do not risk a thought

These are strange times, darling

He who knocks on the door at midnight

has come to kill the light

We must hide light in the closet.

There are the butchers stationed at the crossroads

with bloody clubs and cleavers

These are strange times, darling

They cut smiles from lips and songs from mouths

We must hide joy in the closet.

Canaries barbequed on a fire of lilies and jasmine

These are strange times, darling

Satan is drunk with victory, sitting at our funeral feast

We must hide God in the closet.

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Of (some) converts and online radicalization

So, another white American female convert has been arrested for allegedly providing aid to terrorists. Shannon Maureen Conley, or as she called herself, Halima Conley, from Colorado. Only 19 years old.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what was going on with her on the basis of media reports. If what they have to say is accurate, she comes across as someone who is very naive, socially isolated, socially awkward, takes things at face value… and doesn’t think before she speaks. Perhaps more of a danger to herself than anyone else—but still, she was apparently warned repeatedly that what she was planning to do is illegal, and she did not desist. What did she expect would happen? Was this some sort of a cry for help? An unconscious effort at self-destruction that unlike cutting or drunk driving or suicide attempts would be “moral” in her mind because she could explain it to herself as “religious persecution”?

As usual, the media is trying to explain how an apparently average American suburban young woman ended up not only converting to Islam but supporting a very extreme fringe group whose calling cards are death and more death.  Some turned to social media in search of clues to her radicalization process, and pointed to pictures that she had posted of herself wearing a baseball cap, a hijab, and then a niqab, as if that “progression” explains everything.

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I am a haunted house

For those of us with war-related ptsd, this time of year in North America can be particularly triggering, due to parades including uniformed soldiers, artillery salutes, fireworks and other similar things.

Is it possible to deconstruct sacred texts and stories that were used as weapons against us and others, so that their power to wound is taken away? (Artist: Ala Ebtekar http://www.torandj.com/works1.html)

How do we relate to sacred texts and stories that were used to justify war and torture and a long list of horrors, and to manipulate us into assenting to things that our consciences rejected? Are we forever at their mercy, trapped by the guilt that they were used to instill in us? Is it possible to read them instead of being always read by them?
(Artist: Ala Ebtekar http://www.torandj.com/works1.html)

There’s nothing quite like calmly walking down the street on a holiday afternoon, enjoying the sunshine… until you hear artillery, and even though you rationally know that no real shells are being used and nobody is dying you start to shake, and every ounce of your strength becomes focused on keeping yourself together and getting away from that sound as fast as is humanly possible.

Or like standing in a crowd of happy people ooh-ing and ah-ing over a spectacular display of fireworks, aware that you alone are unwillingly cringing at every boom and being reminded of aerial bombardments and you desperately want to be anywhere but here.

Trying to “ground oneself,” to remember that “that was then, this is now” and that this is just a patriotic holiday celebration and nobody is getting hurt. Trying, and not really succeeding. And feeling very, very alone in that sea of evidently happy people. They can enter into the holiday spirit. But although I can usually seem outwardly composed, inwardly, I am a haunted house.  I never know when the ghosts will reappear. Sometimes I’m almost sort of ok with fireworks and I think that I’m well on my way to overcoming this problem… and then I find that I’m not.

Back in the day, we were taught to recite certain verses from the Qur’an or masnun du’as when we were afraid or otherwise troubled, and it worked. But now, it usually makes things worse. So much of the violence that now haunts me was justified by men (and sometimes women) who quoted from those sacred texts and claimed authority due to their knowledge of them.

What I tend to find more helpful than the invocation of these texts is art that deconstructs their use as weapons in the hands of the powerful.

This particular series by Ala Ebtekar really helped when nothing else did. Not only was it wonderful to see a particular instance of religious wartime propaganda from the ’80’s represented and in the process  unmasked for what it was, but it provides a glimpse of the possibility of a future in which these ghosts might be neutralized. Shorn of their ability to terrorize, and put to work in the service of artistic creativity instead.

 

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Why did we do it? (II)

But why is it that some converts accept Islam, adopt some of the practices and rituals, make some Muslim friends, maybe get a bit self-righteous for a short while…

Oh, the judg-y questions we used to ask in Sisters' Study Circles: Is it permitted to attend a family dinner if there will be wine on the dinnertable? Is it halaal to attend a baby shower for my neighbor who's living with her boyfriend? And so on....

Oh, the judg-y questions we used to ask in Sisters’ Study Circles: Is it permitted to attend a family dinner if there will be wine on the dinnertable? Is it halaal to attend a baby shower for my neighbor who’s living with her boyfriend?
And so on….            [shirt credits]

…but soon come back down to earth and manage to live a relatively balanced and “normal” life involving good relations with their non-Muslim family and neighbors, a happy marriage, fairly well-adjusted kids and making positive contributions to the well-being of society?

While some other converts end up cut off from their non-Muslim families, former friends and neighbors, or suffering psychological harm, or getting into bad or abusive marriages, perhaps only managing to get out years later if at all, with traumatized kids?

I don’t know. It does seem to depend on a number of factors: When and where people convert, their social location (gender identity, race/ethnicity, social class, religious background, educational level, age, occupation, sexual orientation, etc), what sort of Muslim community they get involved with, where they are in their lives at the time, how their family and friends react… and a whole slew of other factors. Some converts seem to be more resilient than others. Some are more able to access the support they need, whether inside or outside their Muslim communities.

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Of converts, headlines, and albino (poisonous) spiders

I’d have to have been living under a rock not to have noticed that yet another female convert is in the headlines again. Yes, Samantha Lewthwaite, aka the “white widow,” as the tabloids have dubbed her.

Samantha Lewthwaite, courtesy of Interpol. I'm still trying to understand where this is all coming from....

Samantha Lewthwaite, courtesy of Interpol.
I’m still trying to understand where this is all coming from….

It’s all a bit surreal, in a way. Back when I and my friends converted, hardly anyone had even heard of white North American or Western European women converting to Islam. Even in Muslim communities, it was a novelty, and we’d often meet born Muslims who were astounded at the very idea that we had converted. As for the wider society—we had no visibility to speak of. On the very rare occasions that a female convert would receive any media attention at all, we’d call one another and tell them to turn on the tv or make sure to take a look at page whatever of the paper. (Yes, that was long before the internet.)

We’d get all excited, that here was one of us. For once, we could see someone like ourselves reflected in the media. We’d make sure our kids (especially our daughters) saw it too, because they needed to know that there were other women out there like their mothers.

So, to think that now, there are actually female converts who are so well known—or notorious would be a better word—to make headlines around the world, and to even have wikipedia pages put up about them… the mind boggles. This is just so weird.

And so very, very sad.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, unfortunately. About converts getting drawn into Islamist politics and becoming radicalized. About the way that some converts end up making conservative “Islamic” decisions about their lives that send them on a downward spiral, which ultimately puts them in situations where they are vulnerable to getting involved in extremism. And the community dynamics that can foster such tragedies.

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More on converts and downward spirals

In the last post, I discussed the downward spirals the female converts can get into, and the ideas found in some conservative Muslim discourses about women’s roles that can promote this.

Are there any solutions? I can already hear the puritanical “do it by the book” types pontificating about this: As we’ve been saying, all sisters, including convert sisters must have a wali in order to get married! Or: Sisters should know that it is their Islamic right to be financially supported by their husbands, and if they allow themselves to be cheated out of their Islamic right, then they only have themselves to blame!

Translation: she had problems because she was Doing It Wrong. She either didn’t know The True Islam (TM), or lacked enough taqwa to put it into practice.

That sort of claim is not really an answer, so much as a conversation-stopper. Nobody is supposed to be bold enough to ask how getting some man who might not really know much about her (like some overworked mosque imam), or even a man whose supposed concern for her welfare might not be disinterested (such as a reputedly pious brother married to her best friend, who is secretly on the lookout for a younger, more attractive second wife) to act as her wali would necessarily protect her from getting into a bad marriage.

Nobody is supposed to notice that many of the reasons that getting into bad marriages can be so destructive to female converts is due to the way the system itself is often set up, what with so much emphasis on women in particular getting and staying married, and such limited options for exiting bad or even abusive marriages. Instead of proposing that there needs to be less pressure on women to marry, and more access to family counseling and female-initiated divorce, the solution is supposed to be more patriarchal control of women by not allowing them to get married without a man’s permission.

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Of bus ads, “dirty laundry,” and moving beyond extremes

A couple of days ago, several emails alerted me to the dust-up about bus ads in San Francisco that quote homophobic statements made by six notorious Muslim leaders. The ads apparently are intended to (wrongly) imply that all or most Muslims are violently hateful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and other queer folks.

Why not just put this ad on every bus in North America?(http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/current_releases/7756.asp)

I like this bus-ad just fine. I’d like to see it as I ride the bus on my way to work (and on the bus-shelters I wait in)….
(http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/current_releases/7756.asp)

Which also implies that the categories of “Muslim” and “LGBTQ” are entirely separate. Mutually exclusive.  Which is obviously ridiculous.

And which also seems to imply that those in North America who most loudly oppose all manifestations of Islam today (aka strongly right-wing conservatives, a number of whom subscribe to particular socially conservative interpretations of Christianity) are also strong supporters of equal rights for LGBTQ people… unlike those awful Muslims.  Except that such right-wingers often aren’t.

Yes, the bus ads are hypocritical and misleading. They seem designed to promote hate. They erase the existence and activism of queer Muslims and their Muslim allies.

But for every cloud, there is a silver lining… or so I’ve often been told. As I read the article I linked to above, I knew that I should feel grateful. For it indicates that there is apparently a slow sea-change taking place among some Sunni Muslims in North America. A small number of fairly prominent figures who are looked up to by conservative “mainstream” Sunnis are coming out (pun intended) and saying that gays are welcome to pray at their mosques and criticizing Muslims for taking hateful or exclusionary attitudes to LGBTQ people. Which is such an improvement over what I am used to.

Yes, I know I should be feeling grateful, happy, even hopeful. So, why am I having flashbacks instead?

Flashbacks to talk after talk after sermon after pamphlet after book after study-circle… an endless loop of just really awful ideas on a range of issues, from sexuality to family to educational policy to world politics. Ideas publicly expressed, in the name of Islam, at Muslim conferences or from the minbar or in Muslim student groups or a events organized for families (or for “the youth”), or even at da’wa events (!?). Often in the hearing of supposedly intelligent and responsible Muslims who did… absolutely nothing.

In my memory alone, I realized, I have enough shocking quotes to fit on hundreds of buses. If not thousands.

If I asked my convert friends for their memories of horrendous quotes, I wonder how many we’d come up with.

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